She and Abraham are an aged childless couple. Outside their tent, Abraham is entertaining a visitor, and Sarah can’t help but eavesdrop. The guest turns out to be God, and God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will conceive and raise a child.
Of course, she laughs — at the sheer impossibility of the thing but, even more, at the joyful idea that, after so many decades of disappointment, their love will bring a child into the world.
The Passion narrative in Mark’s gospel starts off with a similar moment. A woman takes a costly perfumed oil and pours it on the head of Jesus as an anointing. This irks some of the disciples. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?” they say. “It could have been sold for more than 300 days’ wages, and the money given to the poor.”
That’s a very human reaction. But Jesus tells them to leave her be. “The poor you will always have with you,…but you will not always have me.”
The irritable disciples and the nosy Sarah act the way any of us might have acted. God’s message is that “impossible” things can happen and life is more complex than it seems. Faith is necessary to live a full life — to experience the impossible and to get glimpses into the obscure.
Jesus is very human in the story, too. He can tell that the authorities are about to come down on him. He has to know the likely outcome is death, but his dense disciples continue to think of him as a conquering hero.
In his fear and sadness, the gentle touch of the woman’s anointing hands must have been a comfort to Jesus. In a very human way.
Patrick T. Reardon